You Can’t Build a Pyramid From the Top Down

by coachdanbell


Almost everyone agrees that lack of numbers is one of the biggest obstacles to international weightlifting success for USA Weightlifting. There just aren’t very many junior and open age lifters in the sport. With a small pool of athletes from which to draw, there are fewer lifters with elite level talent to develop. The pyramid analogy has been the most common way of framing the many possible solutions offered to address our international failures. In this analogy a large number of athletes are assumed to be the base of the pyramid, given that athlete numbers are what we need. I disagree. It is the local club coaches that make up the base of weightlifting, not the athletes. Weightlifters are the next course up from the base, for the most part the product of the effort and dedication of the coaches that start clubs, recruit athletes and introduce the vast majority of lifters to this obscure sport. If we are looking for a way to grow the sport, to get more lifters into the sport, why not help the people who actually bring almost every new lifter into the sport? Why not encourage the growth of their numbers and their success?

But what do local coaches need to stay in the sport? Money. Connection. Professional development. A little respect.

A coach has to make a real living to free up the time and resources for success. Don McCauley has argued for years that we need to professionalize our coaching ranks to match the professionals in countries like Russia, China, South Korea, and Iran. Can you imagine Ohio State’s football team run by an unpaid amateur who has a real job elsewhere? Who showed up to practice, but had no time for anything else, like recruiting? Nearly all of the coaches in USAW are trying to do something near to that, find and develop national and world class athletes while working as a lawyer, factory worker, Physical Therapist, or carpenter. Making a real living as a coach means time to focus on recruiting athletes. It means time for professional development through continuing education, including visits to successful programs and coaches. It means freeing up resources to secure a training facility and equipment. It means time to build sponsor relationships. Money is time and how that time is spent can make you a professional.

CrossFit has been a huge help from a financial point of view, allowing at least some coaches to supplement their income by teaching weightlifting clinics and classes. And as CrossFit grows, those opportunities grow for coaches. But more can be done. That growth in CrossFit has meant growth in USAW revenues from the Level 1 Courses.  Why don’t we start spreading some of that increased revenue to the coaches in the field who consistently produce at the national, but especially at the international level? This help should not focus only at the top, however. Coaches struggling to establish clubs can benefit greatly from what amounts to a small amount of help. It is expensive to start a club: two platforms, two squat racks and two complete training sets with men’s and women’s bars can cost $4,000 at the low end. Equipment–new or used–or small cash grants to mitigate start-up costs could be a huge help. I don’t know a single coach who has been in the sport more than a few years who hasn’t sunk thousands or tens of thousands of dollars into their clubs with little or no hope of ever seeing that money again. They do it out of love for the sport, but should love hurt so much? USAW can help ease that pain a bit and gain many effective coaches and clubs for not much investment.

One of the first things a local coach realizes is how far he or she is from other weightlifting coaches. Except on meet days, we are pretty much isolated from each other. But even at local meets there is little time for meaningful conversation between coaches, with coaching duties taking up most of their time. Many coaches have more free time to talk weightlifting at national level meets, but it is informal and haphazard. Coaches who don’t have lifters qualified for national level meets miss out on even this, as the expense of traveling to national meets without lifters participating is difficult to justify. The growth of internet forums has allowed informal communication between coaches, but without sitting across the table from each other, face-to-face, internet “communication” often breaks down into pissing matches and petty squabbles. There is also the problem of the water being muddied by newbies and trolls. We need an annual gathering of coaches for networking, comparing notes on training, recruiting, and development, continuing education, mentoring, all things that best happen face-to-face. An annual gathering of coaches for the presentation and sharing of information, for workshops, networking, and just for getting to know each other, is essential not only to the individual development of the coach, but to achieve the aims of the greater organization.

I’ve been told by national office employees more than once, “That information is on the website.” Leaving aside just how difficult it is to find anything on the USAW website, searching for scholarly papers, or articles on training, fundraising, starting a club, etcetera, finding information that way does not connect the coach to other coaches. Face to face conversations take twists and turns that lead you down paths you had not considered, to information you didn’t know you wanted or needed. And the need to talk to someone who has overcome similar problems should not be underestimated.

Face-to-face is the way most of our continuing education should be done as well.  Workshops and presentations should be done at the annual coaches gathering.  While the Level 1 course should still be paid for by those taking it (it is a vital revenue stream for USAW and most who take it are enhancing their resumes, not coaching competitive athletes) the coaches who take the Level 2 course are almost always serious about coaching highly competitive weightlifters. Remember when I spoke about respect? Local coaches should be regarded as the vital assets to the sport that they are, not an additional revenue source. The Level 2 Course should be free and travel around the country to the club coaches who need it. It is an investment in USAW success by developing the local level coaches upon which the entire organization depends.

CrossFit has introduced tens or hundreds of thousands of people to the Olympic lifts. Once people do them and understand them, they love them. They want to do more. But that is useless to USA Weightlifting if there is no one to walk up to these people and say, “Would you like to give the sport of weightlifting a try?” That is the local club coach. We need more of them and we need to help them become the best coaches they can be. They find the lifters. They teach them foundational technique. They get them to the national level and sometimes beyond. More coaches equals more clubs equals more lifters equals the numbers we say we need. If we’re serious about growth, about international success, about medals at Worlds and the Olympics, we need to start building the pyramid at the bottom, with coaches.